Backcountry primed for avalanches |

Backcountry primed for avalanches

Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY ” It may only be early November, but all the ingredients for dangerous avalanches are already in place, experts at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center say.

In addition to the deadly slide at Berthoud Pass Sunday that killed 32-year-old Sam Teetzen, skiers and snowboarders triggered avalanches at Loveland Pass and Independence Pass (between Aspen and Leadville), avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer said.

Rescuers at the Berthoud scene triggered a second large slide, illustrating the tricky conditions.

The slide at Independence Pass was a big one that ran to the ground, and reports of avalanches are also coming in from the Crested Butte area, Toepfer said, although no other injuries were reported.

“Maybe people are thinking, ‘It’s early season, there’s not enough snow to slide,” Toepfer said. “But that big October storm stacked the deck.”

That storm dropped up to three feet at higher elevations, and fell without much wind. Since then, that layer has been changing into faceted snow crystals that don’t stick together very well and form an unstable base for future layers.

The most recent storm dropped 10 inches or more of light snow atop the earlier layer, and was blown into slabs by winds that reached 50 miles per hour, Toepfer said.

“We’ve got all the ingredients needed for avalanche activity,” he said.

While the center is not yet posting official hazard ratings due to a lack of widespread field reporting, Toepfer said the danger in some areas is considerable, with triggered avalanches possible to even probable, depending on direction of the slope and elevation.

“Put those avalanche eyeballs on,” Toepfer said, urging backcountry enthusiasts to pay attention to warning signs such as cracks in the snow and the whoomphing sound of collapsing slabs and the unstable layer beneath.

“It’s early season. Sometimes our enthusiasm overwhelms our common sense,” he said.

The avalanche center will begin broadcasting regular avalanche reports Nov. 11, but started issuing special bulletins in early November. An update from Nov. 5 warned of the potential danger, with weak, faceted snow on the ground, topped by brittle windslabs.

“If you are not punching through to the ground, then there is a good chance you are on a slab,” forecasters wrote in the Nov. 5 bulletin.

“Poke around, and make sure there is not weak snow underneath.

The areas with enough snow to be good skiing and riding are the areas with enough snow to avalanche.”

Vail Colorado

Support Local Journalism